The Stars Passed Down: Jon Tsuei On Sera And The Royal Stars
by Noah Sharma
Vault Comics launched with the promise to provide the best science-fiction and fantasy comics around and, though they’ve perhaps leaned a little more into sci-fi and horror than straight ahead fantasy in their first few years, they made it clear that the fantastic and the historically-tinged side of SF was no stranger to the brand by publishing books like Songs for the Dead and establishing themselves by becoming the home of Natasha Alterici’s Heathen. Now Vault is diving headfirst into fantasy again, but they’re looking quite a bit further eastward than before.
Inspired by the real life culture of Persia, Sera and the Royal Stars is Vault’s latest hit. The series saw enormous hype, both from the publisher, who obviously saw it as a winner, and from readers, who immediately latched onto its stunning visuals and distinctive premise. With the first issue releasing just before San Diego Comic Con, I was eager to speak with series writer Jon Tsuei at the convention. He and Vault were kind enough to make time for an interview to talk about the origins of the series, working with Audrey Mok to craft the book’s celebrated visuals, and where they plan to take Sera and her companions.
Noah Sharma: Sera and the Royal Stars is based a lot in traditional questing narratives, which is something I feel that we kind of don’t see as much anymore. We kind of moved away from that. Do you have any inspirations for the fantasy world you wanted to make?
Jon Tsuei: I think my first introduction to fantasy was actually through video games, it wasn’t through books. And specifically Japanese RPGs. The ones where I was actually old enough to understand what was going on, the first one was probably Final Fantasy IV and then Final Fantasy VI. I still have a very tender spot for those two. So, I think that kind of questing, y’know, visited by some type of god/deity telling you you have to do this thing in order to save the world, there’s probably a lot of video game influence there for that [laughter].
And I found the books much later in life. So I found things like Dragonlance and, um, The Wheel of Time series more when I was a teenager. And those- Dragonlance obviously has a bit of that. Wheel of Time less. So, yeah, but probably video games- playing too many video games when I was a kid. [laughs]
NS: So then you kind of have your fantasy structure in place. Why Ancient Persian fantasy? What was it that brought you to that?
JT: Yeah, well the research for this book started around the Royal Stars and when I started to research them, from what I could find, the origin of their story comes from a piece of Zoroastrian literature. It’s not considered scripture but kind of like, uh, a religious text but not holy scripture. And there seems to be some mention of them in Ancient Egypt, but that’s very unclear.
So, from what I can tell, their origin comes from Ancient Persia, Zoroastrianism. And I felt like to show respect to the origin of where the story came from was to set the story in something inspired by Ancient Persia as well ’cause I could have set it somewhere else, but I think that would have been disrespectful. I mean, I’m not sure many people would have even known that the Royal Stars was specifically a Zoroastrianism thing, but I felt like just, as a respect to the research I did and origin, to place it in a place where that mythology first originated.
NS: So the Royal Stars and that idea came before the setting even?
JT: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. The Royal Stars was kind of the genesis, just kind of looking at their story and what they represent and just kind of the different legends and mythologies tied to those specific stars.
NS: So a lot of our understandings of astrology, and even astronomy, come from the Near East, come from those traditions. How much of it did you find was very easy and kind of familiar to work into, y’know, a mass market work and how much was kind of a little more obscure and how’d you balance that?
JT: So, from what I gathered, the earliest studies of the stars have always been linked to some form of astrology, right? Modern day we’ve moved away from that. But I do think there’s a lot of interesting bits there because, aside from just the astrological meanings of stars and planets and stuff, there’s a lot of story attached to it.
So, you know, the first star in the story is Aldebaran and, obviously Al comes from the Arab “Al”, and al Dabarān means “the one who follows”. And, if you look at the way the star rises, he- the star, Aldebaran follows the Pleiades Star Cluster and that’s kind of what it’s in reference to. The Pleiades, if you look around, they’re considered the Seven Sisters in Greek mythology, but there’s actually all these myths about the Seven Sisters throughout the world. And not just in Greek mythology but in Australian aboriginal culture. You see them, I believe, in some Native American cultures as well. So that was fascinating to me when I was looking at that because it’s like, man, there’s so many similar stories about the same stars or same constellations between cultures that may or may not have ever had contact. Where does that even come from, y’know? So, are these stories somehow ingrained in our human consciousness or are these stories really the stories of these stars that are somehow passed down to us?
So looking at that… there’s a lot going on. So, yeah, it was at times difficult. But at times it wasn’t though, y’know? At times, looking at it, I was like, “Man, this is just fascinating. There’s- there’s just- I wish I could do more, y’know? I wish I could include more stars in the story.” So it was- it’s a really rich area of research, yeah.
NS: What’s your writing process like? How do you like to work?
JT: Um, I used to be very just kind of off the cuff and just write. And that worked for a while but now I try to be more organized. I do have to outline things. I typically go from a pretty large rough outline of whatever story arc. So I kind of did issues 1-5 as one outline. And then I sent that to Adrian, who edits the book, and he kind of would tell me, like, “Hey, looks good, go for it,” y’know? But after that I would just kind of- I don’t- I typically don’t really do a hard outline on individual issues, those I just sort of write and I kinda feel my way through it. And there’s a little bit of back and forth between myself and Adrian, where he’ll tell me what’s working, what’s not working and then we’ll kind of go and tweak and-
One thing about Adrian’s editing style—and I don’t know what it is—he’s very good at sensing when I wanted to do something, but I talked myself out of it. And he’ll kind of point out, like, “Hey, were you trying to do this thing here?” And I was like, “Yes. But I chose to go a different way.” He’s like, “Yeah, go back with your instinct.” ’Cause he’s always been really good about that. So, I have a lot of trust with him. We’re pretty close. Yeah.
NS: The series is currently… ten issues?
JT: Yeah! So we have ten issues planned. Um… we could go more, for sure. I do have more story there to tell. But I think even if we were to end at ten issues, I think it would be a satisfying end for whoever’s reading it. But, y’know, various factors, if those all line up, we could potentially do more than ten, yeah.
NS: You mentioned that you kind of did the first five as one outline.
NS: Does that mean it kind of breaks into two halves in your mind?
JT: Yeah, there is a break in the story… Yeah, in terms of the pacing of the story there is a break, but I feel like issues 1-5 and then 6-10 are one thing. They’re kind of connected. But we did wanna have some type of break in there- Obviously we gotta think about the trade and all that. But I think it’s a good break too, in terms of Sera’s story arc and what she’s going through. And once we get into issue #6, things sort of ramp up again.
NS: So, defining it however you want, is there any advice you would have given yourself if you could go back and kind of help yourself as you were developing as a writer?
JT: Um, yeah. I think the main thing was not be too worried about the writing stuff and live life. I look back now and I don’t think I would be able to tell the stories that I’m telling now without the life experience that I’ve had. Y’know, going through my career in publishing there’s been huge breaks in between when I’ve been published. Um, and there were times where I was kind of stressed out, like, is this ever gonna work out for me kind of thing. But I also think about the fact that I’ve lived and done different things. Y’know, I’ve worked as a bartender, I’ve worked as a DJ, I sold insurance at some point in my life. Y’know, I’ve done really mundane things and some cool things, and traveled a little bit, and all of those things culminate- culminated together is kind of what allows me to tell the stories that I could tell now.
So really don’t worry about it. Always keep writing, but don’t stress the writing. And just- be sure to get out there, live life, because, without that experience- life experience, y’know, everything else you’re just kinda making it up as you go. But if you could draw upon that life experience, then, y’know, you got something there to write.
NS: So then, uh, in the first issue we meet Shaheen a little bit.
NS: Uh, he’s obviously already a master of fashion…
JT: [Laughs]. Yes. Yes he is.
NS: …Of villainous fashion. Uh, are readers gonna get to learn a little bit more about him and his perspective on things or is he kind of-
JT: He’s, I mean, he mainly plays an antagonist role, but I think we do get a little bit of a glimpse into why he’s doing what he’s doing. Y’know, I think he is a little bit of an egomaniac, but, at the same time, he still sees Sera’s father as someone who hasn’t lived up to his position as king, who hasn’t done enough to protect Parsa and its people, y’know? And he thinks that he could do a better job. And that’s why they’re- they’re at- going to war.
So, we don’t spend too much time on Shaheen and his son, Nima, though I love the way Audrey designed them. They’re both so cool looking, y’know. They both got that- that evil smirk going on. I love it, but so much of the story is centered around Sera and the actual Royal Stars that we don’t get to spend too much time there. But I think his motivation becomes more clear as we- as [it] progresses.
NS: Uh, and, speaking of Sera, how do you- like when you pare her down as simple as you kinda can, how do you think of her character? What defines her?
JT: I think Sera is somebody who is torn between her obligations as part of her father’s army, obligations to her family, and this kind of divine quest that she’s been given. She’s- she’s definitely very decisive and- and a tactical mind. She’s not headstrong like her sister, Roya, is. Y’know, she’s- she definitely tries to think things through. But, at the same time, this is all new to her too, right? Because what she really knows is this war with her uncle. Y’know, that’s something that’s been going on for a long time. And she’s never really ventured out and seen the world and now she’s seeing like magical star spirits and, y’know, weird like wizard people, and- just what is going on, y’know?
So it’s kind of a- it’s not only a discovery of the world but a self-discovery too. And I think- I think we kind of join her on this journey and kind of see her as she opens her eyes to what’s going on and kind of comes into herself and grows up a little as the story progresses.
Um, yeah, I don’t know. That was a long answer to- to your question.
NS: That’s fine!
NS: I mean—we kinda touched on it—but this is just such a beautiful book. It has such a sense of style.
NS: What is it like collaborating with Audrey and how much did you get to be part of the development of the visual character of the book.
JT: Yeah, Audrey’s great. I love working with Audrey. The great thing—I feel like our working relationship—we have a lot of trust with one another, y’know? And [in] the beginning, when I kind of had some of these characters mapped out in my head, I sent her just character descriptions of what, y’know, what their story arc is gonna be like, what their personality is like. And I pulled some influences. I typically, whenever I work on any series, I spend a lot of time on Pinterest, pulling images, things that have- that are interesting to me. Um, and I usually kind of send that over to the artist that I’m working with. Just so they kind of get an idea of the mood and the feel of what the world looks like.
But a lot of what Audrey did was stuff that I was- the first- so the first designs that she kind of sent over was one for Sera and then one for Aldebaran and I was immediately like, “Oh, man, this is gorgeous,” y’know?” And Audrey’s very good about allowing- hearing my input, y’know? So there are times when- when things don’t necessarily work out and we’re able to talk it out and figure out what I kind of see in my head and where she was going with it. But I also kind of try to let her have as much control as possible because, y’know, this is- it’s a visual medium, right? And- and I want her to feel like she has ownership over all these characters as well, y’know?
So I definitely think it’s collaborative, and I think the character designs are as much hers as the conception of the book. And without her designs I don’t think the story would be where it is. I’m motivated a lot by the visuals, so I was able to kind of learn about the characters as I’m seeing her [designs] and figure out like, “Okay.” They open doors for me in the story. So I’m glad that Audrey and I are working together ’cause I can’t imagine doing this with anybody else.
NS: Do you do a lot of rewriting after the art comes in or is it more kind of-
JT: There was some in the beginning, yeah. In the early stages Roya and Jahar weren’t Sera’s brother and sister. They were actually just gonna be, uh, just soldiers that she commanded, y’know? And then, as we were developing stuff together we started talking about [it] some more, I was like, “Y’know, I think we need more of like family in there. Like can we- can we make Roya and Jahar’s Sera’s younger siblings?” So there’s just obviously some rewriting that happens once the art starts coming through and I’ve seen more of it. The story becomes more clear when the art comes through, yeah.
NS: That was a really nice- I really liked that relationship in the first issue.
NS: It immediately kind of- it feels real and it gives-
JT: Yeah. This really- it didn’t start out as a story about family and it kind of became a story about family. But I felt like that was the right direction for us to go. Y’know, it feels like the right move. And it all kind of ties together.
So, um, it’s interesting how that process works, right? You think you have a very clear idea in the beginning and then it morphs and changes as you develop it. And I think we went the right way with that.
NS: Well Congratulations. It sounds like it’s a huge success and I think it’s well-deserved.
JT: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Sera and the Royal Stars #2 arrives in comic shops from Vault Comics this Wednesday, August, 28th.